Chapter 22: As the world caves in

Once again, Soyong ends up alone in a closed space.

The room is small, with a lower table she uses as a chair and some shelves with books. Maybe it’s some storage room where the eunuchs store the King’s old books, keeping them ready for him in case they are requested. The walls still make her feel trapped, but unlike in palanquin, silence doesn’t accompany her. Even in this distant room, Soyong hears Wonbeom’s misery. And her wounded heart crushes into smaller pieces with every painful cry leaving Wonbeom’s lips.

If Soyong believed in any gods, she would definitely start praying. So instead she mentally begs Wonbeom to be strong and endure all the pain and come back to her. She believes in the royal physician’s skills: the old man has come a long way from being a reporter to her corrupt relatives, eventually ending up as a trusted ally to her. Soyong hopes he taught his nurses well and the King is in the right hands.

A damning silence is inevitable. Sooner or later the sedative that was surely administered to Wonbeom to ease his misery will start working and everything will go silent. And it will be a time of utter panic for her until someone reassures her he is alright.

Soyong prepares herself for it, but how could anyone be properly ready for something like that?

Her thoughts terrify her, making her pounding heart echo in her ears so loud she gets a headache. But she can’t stop thinking horrible thoughts and she can’t move, completely paralyzed in her fear.

Soyong doesn’t hear when the doors open and someone enters the room – she is too focused on catching Wonbeom’s voice and only his voice. Two feet appear before her eyes, but she’s in complete trance and can’t see or hear anything else. And only when cool silk clothes touch her bare shoulders, does Soyong come back to reality with a shudder.

Soyong lifts her gaze to see Prince Yeongpyeong kneeling before her. Behind him is the Head Eunuch with a tray in his hands, probably for the clothes the prince used to cover her. She must have looked improper, with her shoulders exposed and blood covering her clothes and hands.

“How is His Majesty?” Soyong’s voice sounds unfamiliar to her, too hoarse, almost cracking on the few words she’s squeezing out of herself.

When the prince doesn’t answer right away, Soyong shifts her gaze to Head Eunuch, who is sniffing and trembling from holding back tears. The old man has always cared about the King, even in his spying days. It had made Cheoljong all soft on his personal spy.

“The royal physician had to check that there were no fatal internal injuries,” the prince reports, drawing Soyong’s attention back to him. He sounds much calmer than before, but his red eyes and worried look have not changed.

She simply nods, understanding now the reason for the most pained cries from the King.

“Luckily there’s none, and the royal physician is now stitching the wound,” Yeongpyeong slowly continues.

“Is that all?” Soyong examines the prince’s features, making note that his voice doesn’t sound too relieved for what seems to be relatively good news.

“His Majesty lost a lot of blood,” the prince finally adds in the same even tone. “Only time will tell if His Majesty is truly safe…”

Soyong had suspected this would be the issue: he lost too much blood even though she tied his wound as quickly as possible. The deep red blood had been everywhere, while Wonbeom’s face looked too pale, his skin almost transparent.

Soyong feels like losing her sanity at the thought of being too late or not doing enough. She lowers her eyes to her own hands resting on her lap and sees more blood. Her skirts are stained with red as if a wild painter had brushed the frenzied pattern on it. And her hands are so sticky, so red, the blood caking under her nails to make her hands look like they belong to a butcher, not a queen.

In this sudden realization, Soyong starts shaking uncontrollably and tries to clean her palms, but no matter how hard she rubs her hands the dried blood won’t go away.

“Your Highness, please stop.” She shakes her head at the prince’s voice. “Your Highness!” The prince catches her hands in his strong grip and keeps them still. “You will hurt yourself!”

“How dare his blood… get mixed with His Majesty’s… how could I let this happen…” Soyong rambles, all the horrors of the night finally fully sinking.

She breaks down in tears. Sobbing and rambling off nonsense, her tears fall on her hands locked in Prince’s Yeongpyeong large hands.

“Your Highness, please.” The prince’s voice is firm even in his plea, trying to ground her to reality. “You must get a hold of yourself. His Majesty would want you to be strong and brave at times like this. You must come to your senses, please…”

“How… can… I?” Soyong’s voice shakes with her racking sobs. “I was so foolish… His Majesty was hurt because of me for so long… and now he’s… he’s… it’s my fault again…” Soyong frees her hands from Yeongpyeong’s grip to wipe her tears, only to see blood again and to hopelessly drop them into her lap.

“Look at me, Your Highness.” The prince covers her shaking shoulders and she immediately stops, shifting her gaze to his face.

“Your Highness must gather yourself and focus on what is important right now.” He glances towards Head Eunuch who is still in the room, sobbing quietly from time to time. “Head Eunuch ordered the preparation of a bath. Since your presence here is secret, you will have to take care of yourself on your own…”

Soyong simply nods, not arguing with the prince anymore. She’s too tired and he is right: she must get calm and clean herself. Wonbeom shouldn’t see her like this. He needs her to be strong and she will give him all the care and support she can.

“After that, the royal physician will examine Your Highness, and then…” He stops, suddenly uncertain what she has to do next.

“And then…?” she starts in an unfamiliarly weak voice, but she continues in a much stronger tone, even though her throat is still sore: “I will nurse His Majesty while you arrest everyone responsible for the conspiracy.”

“That is what I intend to do, with help of your friend Seo Hwi. He must prove his value.” Yeongpyeong nods, visibly more relaxed once they change the topic. He is more of a military man, and dealing with feelings is harder for him than for his brother.

“Officially, you, the heir, and all the people at the royal villa will come back in the morning,” the prince continues. “Huijeongjeon Hall will be more secure with trusted guards on watch tomorrow.”

“Tonight will be the most dangerous…” Soyong bites her lower lip. “You must give me some kind of weapon to protect His Majesty and myself!”

Just a moment ago she was hysterical over her hands covered in the blood of the man she murdered and now she asks for a weapon to kill another if necessary. Her emotions are all over the place and Soyong doesn’t think she can truly be calm and consistent tonight.

“That is the spirit His Majesty needs right now.” Yeongpyeong nods in satisfaction.

Soyong welcomes the familiar feeling of annoyance with her Ajubeonim1Ajubeonim – brother in law.. Strangely it comforts her more than all the encouragement he gave her earlier.

She heads to the King’s bathing room in the dark hallway, not a single soul to be seen on her path. The prepared bath is only half full and Head Eunuch can’t stop apologizing for it, but he couldn’t gather more servants to prepare it in secret. The more people know, the more they suspect. The King is wounded and it is clear to anyone the bath isn’t for him. The clueless servants will need time to connect the dots and time is what Soyong needs right now. In the morning these lies will not matter anymore.

Soyong spends most of her time washing her hands from the blood, manically brushing her hands with flower-scented soap and scratching the dirt from under her nails. She rubs her hands over and over again, so intensively that her skin becomes red and raw from it. Logically, she understands her hands are clean after a while, but she still feels dirty. Only when the water grows completely cold does Soyong stop and look down at her hands. The blood is gone from her sight, but it won’t go away so easily from her mind.

She gets up, letting all the water run down her body, and steps out of the bath that is more like a pool due to the King’s privileges. Soyong will surely tease him about it later. That mischievous thought makes her smile for a moment.

However, her cheerful moment ends when she sees the clothes prepared for her. It is a very familiar pair of white pajamas. For someone tall with broad shoulders. The picture of Wonbeom in his night garment smiling at her brightly flashes before her eyes. Quickly she changes into them, tightly tying the knots so the pants won’t fall from her hips, and wraps herself in the shirt, breathing it in deeply.

She had hoped it would smell like him. She vaguely senses something familiar, but the clothes are clean and mostly smell of whatever the servants used to wash them.

There is something else prepared for her: Wonbeom’s white robe with the gold collar. Finally, Soyong recognizes the pine tree and jasmine scent she craved.

Wrapping herself in the robe, she walks out of the bath and heads toward the King’s main chamber. The Head Eunuch welcomes her, reporting that the passage is clear.

Soyong had waited so long to finally see His Majesty after they were separated after battle; however, she hesitates as she stands in front of the sliding doors. It’s so quiet on the other side that she’s afraid of what she might see. She knows her worst fear has not come true or she would have known it by now. But she still hates the thought of seeing him so vulnerable again.

“Open it,” she whispers to Head Eunuch, takes a deep breath, and walks inside.

The candles give the room a warm comforting glow, not too bright or too weak. The royal physician is sitting on his knees in front of Wonbeom’s bed checking his pulse. And on the bed…

Soyong’s eyes wander to Wonbeom’s body lying on the sheets, covered with a blanket. Unlike his treatment after the explosion, he doesn’t need bandages on his face and hands, so she can clearly see how pale he is now. His lips look dry and lifeless and his breathing is sharp and uneven. When Soyong goes closer she sees sweat on his temples and forehead, and she immediately wants to wipe it off.

“How is His Majesty’s health?” She sits cross-legged beside the royal physician, barely holding herself back from touching Wonbeom: she must find out what she can and cannot do so she won’t harm him in any way. “What is the treatment?”

“His Majesty lost a lot of blood and the wound is quite deep.” The royal physician starts his report in a warm and calm voice. “Luckily, his vital organs were not affected by the wound.”

“What a relief…” Soyong hesitantly reaches out her hand to brush off some sweat from Wonbeom’s temple. “His Majesty’s life is not in danger?”

“I gave him a strong sedative. His Majesty must get rest and let his body to heal itself,” he says carefully.

Soyong sharply turns to face the physician after hearing that.

“You mean he won’t come to his consciousness for some time?” She wishes for Wonbeom to wake up soon, so she can look into his eyes and scold him for scaring her so much.

“Indeed. His Majesty will continue taking medicine with sedatives and a special diet mostly of broth.” The old physician lowers his head apologetically. “The bandage must be changed at least twice tonight. A cold compress will help with the fever… Also, we must administer water to His Majesty’s lips…” Soyong nods, memorizing all the instructions about proper bandaging and all the medicine that must be applied to the wound.

“If Your Highness needs assistance, I will send the nurse…” the physician tries to suggest.

“There’s no need.” Soyong says, shaking her head. She won’t be able to sleep anyway.

“Was Your Highness hurt as well?” he delicately asks, narrowing his eyes while examining her.

“I wasn’t stabbed…” Soyong brushes him off, focusing only on wiping the sweat from Wonbeom’s forehead.

“I didn’t ask Your Highness about a stab wound. I asked if you are hurt.”

Soyong snorts at this – why is everyone so outrageous today? How dare he talk with her like this! But she knows it comes from the old man’s deepest concerns so she doesn’t scold him.

“Someone almost suffocated me,” Soyong admits to him, stroking her own neck. She will probably have a huge bruise tomorrow.

“Your Highness’s voice sounds quieter than usual,” the old physician says with a slight smirk. Soyong only rolls her eyes: she has grown to trust him, but he still slips in sarcastic remarks from time to time. “And a bit hoarse,” he continues, examining her neck. “Does Your Highness have trouble breathing?”

“Not at all. It hurts only when I speak.” Soyong feels uncomfortable talking about it. Her minor injury is nothing compared to what Wonbeom is experiencing. She almost lost her life, but she is alright now and will recover from it quickly.

“I will prepare medicine for Your Highness as well. And for now, please try to minimize talking…” he advises her.

“Court Lady Choi would love to hear that,” Soyong says amusedly, imagining her older friend’s nagging and determined attempts to prevent Soyong from opening her mouth.

The old physician leaves and Soyong is finally left alone with Wonbeom. She wets the compress in the water and slowly wipes all the sweat from his forehead and temples. Wonbeom releases a weak whimper at the feeling of the cold compress and his eyes move under his eyelids in a distressed manner.

“I am here, Your Majesty. It is alright…” Soyong whispers, lowering her lips to his ear. “Shhh… It’s going to be alright, Wonbeom-ah…” She places her palm on his chest, patting lightly to calm him down. “You need to sleep and see a good dream.” She wipes his forehead once again. “Do not worry about anything, Wonbeom-ah. You have me to back you up…”

Soyong continues her attempts to soothe him, humming one of the lullabies Wonbeom wrote for their son. Hours later, after Soyong has tended to his wound and changed the bandage, his fever finally goes down and his breathing becomes even.

“Your Majesty has a strong spirit.” Soyong caresses his cheek, smiling softly as she looks down at his sleeping face, which is still too pale for her liking. “Only the true King and a determined person could defeat fate itself… Shake everything off and return to me with your usual vim and vigor.”

Time moves slowly, but no matter how endless the night feels, the morning will start as it is supposed to. Because no matter how much Soyong’s world has shattered in the past hours, the world would continue living.

Author’s notes:

Lonely with people around – paraphrased quote from Kim Jung Hyun from MrQueen interview when he described Cheoljong and Soyong, wishing for them to get along.

Vim and vigor – a bit changed version of Cheoljong’s words from coma episode when he asked for Soyong to wake up.

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    Ajubeonim – brother in law.

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